It’s hard to remember a more flattering profile of an important CEO than the one gracing the cover of the current Fast Company.
The headline is “King Bezos,” and there doesn’t seem to be much irony lacing through there.
The subhead is: “Inside the 3-part plan to make Amazon the most loved* company in world.” The asterisk points to a note: “Also the most feared by Apple, Netflix, Google, Walmart, EBay, and more.”
The photographs are even more iconographic than the usual business-press big-shot-on-the-cover-format. You really have to see the print edition to appreciate it, but this gives the idea:
The story begins:
A surprisingly diminutive figure, clad in blue jeans and a blue pinstripe button-down, Bezos flings open the door with an audible whoosh and instantly commands the space with his explosive voice, boisterous manner, and a look of total confidence. “How are you?” he booms, in a way that makes it sound like both a question and a high-decibel announcement.
Of course, anyone would seem diminutive in real life after the buildup Bezos gets in this and other friendly outlets. Overall, the piece brings to mind this insight on how Bezos uses the press to his advantage from a recent profile by The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey (with my emphasis):
Richard L. Brandt, who wrote an unauthorized biography called, “One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com,” said Bezos shuns newspaper reporters in favor of a few business and technology reporters at high-end magazines. Bezos grants them interviews at times that best suit him, such as when he is rolling out a new product.
“He selects the journalists he wants to work with rather than them selecting him,” he said. “With the rest of us, he gives very little away.
When the Allentown Morning Call asked for comment on its epic series on sweatshop working conditions at Amazon warehouses in Pennsylvania, Amazon didn’t respond—at all. It just ignored it. This is bush league.
All this is not to say the Fast Company story isn’t interesting and informative. It is both. As I’ve written, access reporting—and that’s what this is—has its place, and access to Bezos here yields valuable information: namely, that Amazon plans to expand a same-day delivery service it has for groceries in Seattle to the rest of its vast inventory—and across the country. Coupled with the company’s $79-a-year Prime delivery option, which incentivizes customers to use the site constantly for all manner of goods, the potential for Amazon further expanding its dominance of retail—and the delivery business—becomes apparent.
But it’s the article’s tone that’s so striking. So upbeat! Some snippets:
Amazon has done a lot more than become a stellar retailer. It has reinvented, disrupted, redefined, and renovated the global marketplace
Amazon’s 1-million-square-foot Phoenix fulfillment center produces a steady and syncopated rhythm
Given the astounding growth of Amazon, and the seemingly infinite ways it has defied the critics, Bezos may have proved himself the best CEO in the world at taking the long view. But he doesn’t like talking about it.
And so on. The critical distance here is razor thin.
There’s also an unnecessarily generous treatment of Amazon’s decades-long scorched-earth fight not to collect state sales taxes, which gave a huge, and hugely unfair, price advantage over bricks-and-mortar retailers.
Having gamed the system for years, Amazon has finally lost the fight. But now, we learn, it’s using its new-found heft to build enough warehouses near urban areas so that its expanded same-day delivery service can offset the expenses of paying taxes like everybody else.
For Fast Company, that’s an applause line, a “cunning shift in tax strategy.”
But Amazon has since changed its mind. It determined that the benefits of more fulfillment centers—and all the speed they’ll provide—will outweigh the tax cost they’ll incur. So it began negotiating with states for tax incentives…
Quoting a friendly consultant:
“The general perception is companies thinking, Oh, great, finally a level playing field,” Rossman says. “But other retailers are going to regret the day. Sales tax was one of the few things impeding Amazon from expanding. Now it’s like wherever Amazon wants to be, whatever Amazon wants to do, they are going to do it.”
As Peter Elkind and Doris Burke’s investigation earlier this year in Fortune showed, Amazon’s tax avoidance strategy was not marginal to the company, but part of its very DNA, from Bezos originally plotting to start Amazon on an Indian reservation to avoid collecting taxes forward.